Penn State University had a reputation for operating secretly and with impunity long before the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal broke.
A grand jury report released Thursday suggests former university president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley believed they could ignore grand jury subpoenas, stonewall investigators and university trustees, and keep secrets about a former assistant coach they long knew was accused of abusing children and was under investigation.
Now those men are charged with obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiring to cover up what they knew about the former coach’s illicit activities with children. All maintain they are innocent of crimes experts say are unprecedented in American higher education.
“Penn State isn’t really in trouble because of the child sexual abuse scandal; Penn State is in trouble because of the alleged cover-up,” said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, a crisis communications and issues management firm in Washington. “Had Penn State acted transparently when the sexual abuse occurred, it wouldn’t have been in trouble. … Other schools have had scandals involving sexual abuse, but because they didn’t cover it up we’re not talking about them.”
Attorney General Linda Kelly said the report uncovered “a conspiracy of silence.”
Investigators and prosecutors found enough evidence to convict Sandusky, who is serving 30 to 60 years in prison for abusing 10 boys in and around university facilities. The grand jury said it was not until trustees ousted Spanier on Nov. 9, 2011, that the university began to comply with its subpoenas and the scope of alleged cover-up began to emerge.
According to the report:
Schultz kept a secret “Sandusky file” containing notes and documents about allegations from 1998 and 2001 against the coach;
University staffers, who said top administrators never sought electronic records, produced emails reflecting the trio’s knowledge of the 1998 allegations and “direct evidence of the involvement by Spanier, Schultz and Curley in the failure of Penn State to report” the allegations in 2001;
The university first gave investigators only a few documents and then produced 22 boxes of documents, photographs and letters to his victims that Sandusky, who retired in 1999, left behind;
Retired general counsel Cynthia Baldwin briefed Spanier on all details of the Sandusky investigation and told him he was obligated to report it to trustees. She said she later learned he told trustees the investigation had nothing to do with Penn State, that it regarded a child in Clinton County and that he could not divulge details because of grand jury rules. Baldwin testified she told Spanier he was free to tell the board about the grand jury investigation.
Many board members said they were stunned when authorities arrested Sandusky on Nov. 5, 2011, and the attorney general alleged that Curley and Schultz engaged in a cover-up.
Information about the allegations and investigation was held so closely that Penn State President Rodney Erickson, who as university provost reported directly to Spanier, told the Tribune-Review he knew nothing about the secrets Spanier, Curley and Schultz are accused of sharing.
Erickson and Karen Peetz, whom trustees elected board chair last winter, repeatedly vowed to make transparency a priority. Neither was available for comment after Spanier’s arrest.
Experts and some trustees say transparency is a lofty goal, given the history of operations at the sprawling university in the small mountain town far from the scrutiny of the state’s population centers.
Grabowski said he sees little evidence of progress.
“I think the university is still a long way away from climbing out of the hole they were in a year ago, partly because talking about transparency and acting on transparency are two different things,” he said.
Former trustee Ben Novak, a Centre County lawyer who served from 1988-2000, said board rules hamper openness, including long-standing orders that require trustees to “publicly support board decisions” and “speak for the board or the university” only with prior authorization of the board chair.
Keith Eckel, a trustee since 2001, said when he joined even the president’s salary was a closely-held secret among a five-member compensation committee. Years later, Penn State went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to keep a coach’s salary from becoming public.
Don Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University, headed the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State for many years and remembers how Penn State fought to keep information under wraps.
“It certainly was a very strong fight that university put up to keep salary information private, but it was a broader fight to make sure that Penn State was not subject to the (Freedom of Information) laws. The university fought very, very hard to keep that right,” said Heller.
Although Penn State must disclose compensation for its 25 highest-paid employees because of a 2009 state law, it is not required to disclose all salaries and contract information as most public universities must.
Eckel said the board embraces its oversight role and will move forward under Peetz’s leadership.
“I absolutely believe the board of trustees has been on a journey of improving its governance structure for a good 10 years,” Eckel said.
Ryan McCombie, a retired Navy SEAL elected to Penn State’s board on a reform platform in a hotly-contested alumni race last summer, said change is difficult.
“I believe that the leadership of the (board of trustees) is trying to be more open and forthcoming,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is very much a work in progress.”
Michael Poliakoff, who studies university governance for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, conceded the process has begun.
“But they have a very long way to go, to the point where (trustees) are independent fiduciaries who work with the administration rather than being an arm of the administration,” Poliakoff said. “That was the source of the problem that Penn State suffered from so much in the Sandusky affair.”